There’s a saying that Russians are good at three things: suffering, making others suffer, and complaining about suffering. It would be funny, if it didn’t also happen to be true. As a Russian Jewish immigrant, I’ve lived that saying. I was raised to tolerate pain and suffering while moving forward.
Which is why it’s ironic that I created a company called Happier and have dedicated my career to helping people cultivate more joy and meaning in their life. If someone told me this is what I’d be doing a decade ago, I would have laughed. Cynically.
Back then, the pursuit of happiness seemed frivolous to me, if not downright stupid. Self-help and psychotherapy—well, they seemed like weirdly American concepts. So self-indulgent! I believed myself to be too driven, too complex to waste my time thinking about happiness, not to mention spirituality. I was allergic to the very idea of those things.
There had never been anything spiritual in my life. I lived in Russia until I was 13, and all forms of religion were illegal. While it’s true that part of the reason my Jewish family left the Soviet Union in 1989 was to escape religious persecution (Jews were not allowed to practice any religious customs or ceremonies), for us, Judaism was cultural, not religious. When we were invited to celebrate Jewish holidays in America shortly after we’d emigrated, we had no clue what we were supposed to be doing.
My attitude toward spirituality went beyond lack of experience or truly understanding what it was, however. Somewhere along the way, I’d adopted the view that spirituality was a crutch for people who couldn’t hack reality, a concept people latched onto to make life easier.
I didn’t do easy. I was a fighter who knew the difference between real life and fantasy: Like a good Russian, I was certain that anything worthwhile was to be found through struggle and suffering.
So how did I come to embrace the very things—happiness and spirituality--that I was once skeptical about? How, and why, did I make those things the focus of my work—and my life?
Like many people, I only shifted my perspective when I hit rock bottom. Despite my successes, despite my beautiful family, a few years ago I found myself waking up every morning with a deep sense of dread and overwhelming insecurity. I was barely functioning, as a wife, an entrepreneur or a mother, and I was desperate for relief. Almost by accident I discovered a raft of studies that linked happiness to practicing gratitude.
Of course, initially, I dismissed those studies completely, including research by one of the leading positive psychologists, Martin Seligman, and others that found that consciously practicing gratitude—say, by writing down three things you are grateful for at the end of each day—directly benefited emotional well-being. “How simplistic,” I thought, “it’s never going to work for someone as successful at suffering like me.”
Yet desperation can make a person do strange things. Despite my skepticism, I tried the gratitude thing anyway, as an experiment I was certain would fail. For 30 days, I committed to writing down three good things about my day. I also vowed to have one positive human interaction a day, by doing something as simple as actually smiling as I said “thank you” to my local barista, rather than mumbling the words under my breath as I rushed away.
No one was more surprised than I was when my experiment worked. “Who are you?” my husband asked when, a few weeks in, I leaned over to a nearby couple at our neighborhood restaurant who were perusing the menu, and told them my favorite dishes. After that, I even joked with the waiter.
“What—I used to be bitchy or something?” I said to my husband, smiling, because I knew what he meant.
“Not at all,” he said. “It’s just that you’re enjoying being here, now.”
It took more months of research and practice, of course, but choosing to be happier in the here and now instead of telling myself that I only deserved to be happy after massive struggle and suffering lifted my dread. Eventually, I was able to pause and notice that there were tiny moments that seemed almost, well, spiritual in their beauty and perfection, like the enthusiasm with which my daughter greeted me at the top of the stairs when I came home from work or the way the sun hit the tulips on our living room table. But as time passed, it became clear, even to a cynic like me, that doing things like reflecting on what I was grateful for, and even meditating, made my days brighter, fuller, more authentic, and richer.
If you find it tough to believe that things like happiness can be consciously learned and practiced, just like any tangible skill, or if you doubt that gratitude could work for you, I don’t blame you. But I urge you to try this simple practice of pausing a few times a day to truly appreciate something that’s already there, in your life as it is, without having to do anything to change it.
Looking back, I realize that one of the things that kept me from learning how to be happier for most of my life was the belief that happiness was selfish and self-indulgent. But something unexpected happened:
When I became happier, so did my family. My friends. People I worked with.
That’s because happiness tends to be contagious. Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor at Yale University, and James Fowler, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego, have conducted several studies showing that behavior and moods, including happiness, can be transmitted within our social networks. For instance, if you’re happier, a friend living close by has a 25 percent higher chance of becoming happier, too.
The benefits go beyond that. People who are happier tend to become a force for good in the world. They don’t start wars. They don’t destroy. They help people around them feel more joy and kindness. They invent solutions to problems because feeling happier creates a mindset of possibility.
Indeed, cultivating the ability to find joy and meaning in everyday moments, and learning to be okay even when tough things are happening is the least selfish thing you can do. It’s an amazing gift to yourself but also one you’ll share not only with the people you love, but with anyone who is part of this vast, complex human network that that supports us. We need more of that kind of unselfishness, especially now.